A large percentage of visitors to Switzerland will use the Swiss trains to see around this beautiful country rather than hiring a car. The guide books are full of praise for the Swiss transport system, its efficiency and its wide ranging connections. The difficultly sometimes however is choosing the right swiss train pass, and I know we deliberated over this for sometime, before purchasing a 15 day swiss pass.
This was the first time we had ever relied solely on train to tour a country. Here are some tips about travelling in Switzerland by train.
1. Before you leave home, print off some train timetables from the SBB website, which will give you lists of possible connections, including the expected business of the train as well as the number of changes that you will need to make to get to your final destination. You are unlikely to know all of your travels before you leave, but it is wise to print the information about those that you do know about. It is also very wise to print off your very first intial journey train timetable, as we found that it took us a little while to get to grips with how the trains worked. For example, we were arriving at Geneva airport, and planned to get the train from the airport into the city centre, so in advance we had printed off the various times that would coordinate with the arrival of our flight. Now the airport train into Geneva is probably one of the easiest, in that all the trains are just sitting there - but if you going beyond Geneva for your first night, you really need to know what platform to go to etc. You can purchase timetables in advance, but you would be wiser to print out some of your own, and then pick up in many of the larger train stations a little timetable booklet for the connections in that region. Or, you can go to the ticket office and ask them for the connections, but there are usually long queues, and with some more irregular trains you wouldn't want to miss connections and have to hang around for the next one. In the train stations there are also boards up with arrival and departure times which we learnt how to read after a day or so, but none of this is easy when you just arrive, and especially if like us, you don't use the train regularly in your home country.
2. If you are travelling with luggage, do we aware that there is not a lot of room for large bags. We had two large luggage bags since we were on holiday for two weeks. There is plenty of room above the seats (like an aeroplane) for some smaller bags and smaller cases, but not for large bags/suitcases. There is also some room underneath the seats, between seats, but these spaces are filled quickly, especially when the train is busy. We sometimes just loaded our bags on the seat in front of us. Some of the more modern trains have luggage shelves but it is dependent on how modern the train is. If we were to do our trip again via the trains, we would invest in larger rucksacks, that we could simply carry on our back, rather than suitcases that have to be pulled around, because it is also worth noting, on a lot of trains, there are narrow steep steps onto the carriage, and it is difficult to pull up suitcases. It is much easier if you can just walk on to the carriage with a rucksack. One more thing to remember is that a lot of the smaller stations will only have steps that will take you up and down to the platforms, meaning more pulling of suitcases. Some larger stations like Geneva have ramps.
3. When you get to Switzerland, set your watch to the clock at the first Swiss train station to finf yourself at. The vast majority of the time, the trains will leave at exactly the time stated such as 10.07. On rare occasions the trains leave late, usually because they have arrived late, but they really don't hang around. We missed only one connection whilst there. The train left at exactly the right time but somehow seemed to get behind, and we were five minutes late. The connecting train does not wait, even though we were actually only one minute over the time it was due to depart. In saying that, we just went to the ticket office and found another connection.
4. Be prepared for the lack of air con in most trains. We were in Switzerland during a very hot spell of weather. Some of the more modern trains were cooler, particularly the double decker trains, but all of the older trains were very very hot. They had windows to pull down but no air seemed to get in the carriage.
5. You need to keep you wits about you when travelling on the train. Stops will not always be announced in English. In fact, they were rarely announced in english, outside of the main cities. In the lugano area (the Italian speaking area of Switzerland) train announcements are made purely in Italian, no french or german either.
6. Make sure you get on the correct class carriage. Like a lot of people we opted for second class to travel. We did walk through a first class carriage, and yes there was more leg room and luggage room, but is it really worth paying the extra for? We didn't think so. The first class carriages are marked with a the number 1 that is in yellow. The second class carriages are marked with a 2 and are in green. On the platform there will be an overhead sign, with information about the destination and some of the stops, but it will also tell you the sections for 1st and 2nd class, so you know where to stand on the platform to be ready. EG. 2nd class was very often in sectors C&D, so you can head down to that particular area of the platform to be ready for the arrival of the train.
7. Always have your ticket or swiss travel pass handy. There are inspectors on most trains, and they will issue spot fines if you are found to have no ticket or pass.
8. When you are purchasing your swiss travel pass and weighing up the advantages of the different types of pass, bear in mind the full cost you will pay for a train ticket. We were originally only going to take the swiss pass for 8 days, since we were going in to Italy for the last few days of our holiday. However, when we priced how much it would cost for our final journey from Italy back to Geneva airport, it was going to be over 300 CHF for the two of us. Now, it worked out so much cheaper to extend our pass to 15 days, even though we weren't able to use it is Italy. So it really is useful to weigh up everything but dashing in to buy a pass. It is also worth adding in all the extras, particularly if you are getting the Swiss pass. We must have saved a small fortune, from half price cable cars and funiculars to free tranport on Lake Geneva CNG boats and Lake Lugano boats.
9. Finally, always make sure you know what platfrom you have to get to when you are making connections. These will be printed on timetables, but when you come off a train, there are usually between 5 and 8 minutes allowed for you to catch your next train, but this may involve havign to go under the rail lines to get to the platform on the other side of the track, it is rarelya matter of just strolling to the next train. Be prepared to move fast!!
All in all, travelling by train in Switzerland is a good way to go, particularly since the country is so well connected with rail. It is a more economic way as well, especially if you are going to be moving about a lot, no need to pay tolls or petrol, and some of the towns are car free anyhow, so you will have to leave you car at the car park and pay not only for it, but also for your train ticket into the town. The trains are reliable and efficient, and the only thing, as I said, that we would do differently, is take large rucksacks rather than drag suitcases onto trains. We were very pleased that we had toured Switzerland this way and would recommend it!